Forgotten/Ignored Gems (Pt. 2)

Matinee (1993, Dir: Joe Dante)

Recently, while taking in the newest and very gratifying Spielberg/Hanks collaboration, Bridge of Spies, I couldn’t help but recall Joe Dante’s 1993 classic, Matinee, which dealt with much of the same high-stakes Cold War paranoia, albeit comically.

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Set on Key West, FL, during 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis, the movie stars Simon Fenton (a Brit doing a perfect American accent) as Gene Loomis, a young high-schooler whose family recently moved to the island’s Naval Air Station, yet another port in Gene’s nomadic childhood. Living on base and hesitant to make friends with the kids in town (he’ll only lose them when his father is reassigned yet again), Gene spends an inordinate amount of time at the local movie theater, The Strand, losing himself in the cheesy monster movies of the day.

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At one such show he sees a preview for a new motion picture from “the screen’s No. 1 shock expert” Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman, his character inspired by real-life schlockmeister, William Castle) called Mant! (“Half man. Half ant. All terror!”) to be presented at the Strand for an exclusive premiere run. Better yet, Woolsey will be in attendance himself to roll out some of his proprietary cinematic technologies such as AtomoVision and RumbleRama.

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Woolsey’s timing couldn’t be more fortuitous–with President Kennedy’s naval blockade ramping up just 90 miles south, the residents of Key West are on edge. “Think of it,” he says, licking his chops, “Millions of people looking over their shoulder, waiting for God’s other shoe to drop. Never knowing if each kiss, each sunset, each malted milk ball might be their last.” What better atmosphere in which to unleash a film featuring mutation via atomic radiation?

Ironically, it’s that very blockade that gives Gene a bit of standing at school (his father is serving on one of the Navy ships), something that he, as the transient “new boy,” usually lacks at most ports of call. Soon he befriends the popular Stan and the two make plans to see Mant! together, with dates hopefully. Stan, a bit of a lady’s man, has his eye on the beautiful Sherry (played with eye-batting perfection by Kellie Martin), a flirt who previously dated Harvey Starkweather (no doubt a tongue-in-cheek nod to Charlie Starkweather, the famous teenaged murderer), a greaser-poet shipped off to reform school (and who returns to cause trouble later in the movie). 

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While Gene and Stan fret over dates and, later, drool over the sudden buildup of American troops up and down the island’s southern beaches, Key West’s adult population becomes increasingly unhinged over the escalating blockade, a  good portion of them overwhelming local grocery stores for supplies to last them through what’s looking more and more like an inevitable nuclear winter. 

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Woolsey arrives in town less worried about World War 3 and more about how his movie will play with Key West’s residents, who he refers to as “yokels.” (“Tough to get people stirred up around here,” he notes. “Could be this bomb business.”) The deck looks stacked against him–that evening, out in front of the Strand theater, a couple of guys claiming to represent Citizens for Decent Entertainment warn passersby of the moral danger inherent in schlocky horror movies, especially Woolsey’s, which, they maintain, have been known to incite riots and cause injury at their showings. “This guy Woolsey,” notes the taller of the two, a guy named Bob, “his pictures are all the same–a cheap sick thrill for a bunch of hop-headed teenagers.” And when a “hippie” in the gathering crowd has the nerve to ask about a filmmaker’a first amendment right to free speech, the other rep, Herb, fires back, “There’s no first amendment to the 10 commandments, pal.” Later, they’re seen at a local watering hole, peddling their outrage to anyone unlucky enough to take a seat close by:

Bob [to an unfortunate patron]: “Maybe it’s time you took a good look what’s going on in your own town, mister. Wake up and smell the coffee.”

Herb [to the same]: “Wake up and smell the wreckage of young minds.”

Bob: “Gag on it.”

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Herb: “You know they let little children see these things. What’s the message they put out?”

Bob: “That atomic power is nothing but trouble? And it’s alright for mutations to rip the clothes off young women?”

Herb: That’s what they teach the youngsters. That’s a long way from George Washington and the cherry tree, isn’t it?”

Woolsey conveniently “stumbles” upon Herb and Bob at their initial demonstration in front of The Strand and proceeds to makes a heartfelt pitch against prejudgment.  “Now it’s true that my movies show things what others won’t show,” he says, “things that some people say are shocking, things that some people are scared even to imagine. But is that really more terrible than the world we live in every day?” Ever the self-promoter, he then passes out free vouchers for the premiere, asking the crowd to judge for themselves.

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Gene happens to witness the confrontation and, while happily accepting a couple of free tickets, can’t shake the feeling that something was amiss, that something about the three men’s delivery sounded canned to him (and us). Not to mention that Herb looked vaguely familiar. Back home, digging through his collection of sci-fi magazines, Gene suspicions of a ruse are confirmed. It seems that Herb is a member of Woolsey’s troupe of actors, having appeared in many of the schlockmeister’s pictures. They’re plants hired by Woolsey to drum up interest, a bit of insider knowledge that Gene uses to blackmail Woolsey into letting him help set up the theater for the big premiere. (Bonus Info-nugget: there’s a joke within a joke here. The actor playing Herb is Dick Miller, who’s a member of director Dante’s troupe of actors. The guy playing Bob is filmmaker and writer John Sayles, who also goes way back in terms of collaboration with Dante. This actor troupe gag runs the entirety of the movie, with Dante inserting people he’s worked with over the years in both the fictional Matinee setting and the fiction-within-a-fiction Mant! setting, actors such as Robert Picardo, Belinda Balasko, Kevin McCarthy and William Schallert):

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Anyway, to make a long story short and not give away too many specifics, what follows is Gene negotiating his blossoming school friendships, a budding interest in girls, his love of film, Woolsey as a surrogate father and, finally, the raucous premiere of Mant!, all set against the backdrop of possible worldwide annihilation.

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In the hands of lesser talent, Matinee easily could’ve regressed into coming-of-age teen sex comedy, the drive to lose one’s virginity accelerated by the approach of the brink, or a depressing Fail Safe-ian riff on nuclear terror. Director Dante and his screenwriter, Charlie Haas, steer clear of both, however, keeping the proceedings light throughout.

That’s not to say that Matinee isn’t without ideas. Actually, beyond its simple plotting and frequent silliness there’s a ton going on just below the surface.

First and foremost, Matinee is a movie about loving movies, both the act of watching and the process of making. At one point Woolsey tries to explain to Gene why he gets such a kick trying to scare people:

“It’s for their own good,” he says. “People who [cover their eyes] at the scary parts. They’re not getting the whole benefit. You gotta keep your eyes open. A zillion years ago a guy’s living in a cave, he goes out one day–bam!–he gets chased by a mammoth. Now, he’s scared to death, but he gets away. And when it’s all over he feels great. Because he knows he’s still living. And he feels it. So he goes home, back to the cave, first thing he does, he does a drawing of the mammoth. And he thinks, people will come to see this. Let’s make it good. Let’s make the teeth real long, and the eyes real mean. Boom! The first monster movie. That’s probably why I still do it. Make the teeth as big as you want, and then you kill it off, everything’s OK, the lights come up. Ahhh.”

Matinee goes on to pay homage to (and parody) both the communal act of movie-going and the types of movies Dante and Haas loved growing up. Which is why we’re treated to a scene in which Gene, forced to take his brother to the movies, is made to suffer through some family-oriented dreck called The Shook-Up Shopping Cart, a riff on the Disney movies of the late 60s/early 70s featuring anthropomorphized animals or objects.

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Although onscreen for just a moment, Dante lovingly recreates the look, feel and idiotic physical humor these types of movies excelled in, going so far as to film the short sequence in a more genre-appropriate 2.39:1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio rather than the 1.85:1 he was using for his actual movie. (Bonus info-nugget: If you look closely at the clips below you may spot a certain actress, unknown at the time, who, thanks to David Lynch, has gone on to stardom.)

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And then, of course, there’s the main film-within-a-film, Mant!, a good portion of which we get to watch in Matinee’s last act. Again, Dante painstakingly recreates the b-movie schlock of the 50s and early 60s, his take on man-turned-giant-insect-run-amuck replete with overly dramatic titles…

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…hilariously bad dialogue:

Woman: “How could such a thing happen, Doctor?”

Doctor: “X-rays, Carol, a form of radiation. An ant must have bit Bill when he was having his teeth x-rayed. I’ve been meaning to have the office fumigated but I’ve been too darn busy. By the way, I did get your x-rays back, Bill. I don’t suppose it makes much of a difference now but you didn’t have a single cavity.”

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…cheesy special effects…

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…wooden acting…

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…and extracurricular gimmickry…

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It’s interesting to note that cheesy horror movies weren’t just a fond memory from Dante’s younger days; they were also his livelihood before breaking into Hollywood’s mainstream (with 1984’s Gremlins). Dante began his career, as many other famous directors (Francis Coppola, James Cameron, Ron Howard, to name a few), working for Roger Corman, an independent producer who’s regarded as the king of low-budget cult films.

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Dante went on to direct Piranha (1978) and The Howling (1981), both horror films filled with doses of wicked humor. So it’s not much of a stretch to say that Dante’s recreation of Mant! is also a nod to his own humble cinematic beginnings.

Dante and Haas also use Matinee to lovingly recreate and, at the same time, skewer the naiveté of the early 60s. In an early scene, set in Gene’s high school, a teacher extolls the virtues of the “red meat food group” of which “you’ll want to make sure you have three servings a day to satisfy this food group. Breakfast, you’re going to have bacon, sausage, something of this nature. Lunch, a hamburger, pork sandwich, something like this…”

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His presentation is cut short by an air raid siren. This being in the midst of the Cuban blockade, both teachers and students scramble into the hallway to assume the hilariously ineffective “duck and cover” position.

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In quick succession Dante lovingly sends up an incredibly out-of-date understanding of the food pyramid and the ability to survive nuclear Armageddon, the absurdity of the latter voiced by a student named Sandra, the daughter of a couple of beatniks and Gene’s eventual crush, who refuses to assume the position, arguing, “If you think it’s going to help you putting your arms behind your neck when the bomb falls you’re wrong.”

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As she’s herded towards the principal’s office by an irate teacher she adds, “If you die when the bomb first falls you’re lucky. ‘Cause if not you’re going to get radiation poisoning. First you hair’s going to fall out. And then you’re going to bleed from your intestines. And then you’re going to start throwing up. But you’re not throwing up food, you’re throwing up your own organs!”

Matinee may seem like all silliness, but it’s got more on its mind: the Cold War, nuclear paranoia, greasers, beatniks, censorship, B-movies, first crushes, nostalgia, to name but a few. All the performances are winning–it’s obvious the cast was having a good time making the movie.

And finally, it’s got a great last shot, one that’s considerably more ominous than all that preceded it: with the Cuban Missile Crisis winding down without destroying the planet, and Mant! looking to be a hit despite its less than smooth premiere, a newly flush-with-cash Woosley says his goodbyes to the newly together Gene and Sandra and drives out of town. Gene and Sandra, accompanied by the song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” then walk to the beach to watch the military clear out. In the distance a helicopter approaches. Dante cuts to a closeup of the distinctly giant-insect-looking craft, the meaning of the shot and the song clear: For all of the gimmicks guys like Woolsey can come up with to scare people, they pale in comparison to the potential terror, luckily back in hibernation (for the moment, at least) that exists in the real world. And, unlike a Woolsey horror picture, one can’t “kill it off, everything’s OK, the lights come up. Ahhh.”

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Matinee hasn’t been released on Blu-ray (the preferred Conflicted Film Snob format). There is a bare-bones DVD out there somewhere and it’s available for high-definition rental on most of the main streaming sites. Here’s the trailer:

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